Students In Arizona’s Outlawed Mexican-American Studies Program Outperformed Their Peers

Our guest blogger is Stephanie Frenel, an intern with the education policy team at the Center for American Progress Action Fund.

Early this year, Arizona Republicans passed legislation banning ethnic studies in public school classrooms, jeopardizing a Tucson school district’s Mexican-American studies program. On January 10, conservatives in the Grand Canyon state, including Arizona State Superintendent of Public Instruction John Huppenthal, convinced the courts to declare that the program did not abide by current state law, putting school aid in jeopardy for any district deciding to implement it.

The Tucson Unified School District’s Mexican American studies (MAS) program was a series of classes that focused on the Mexican-American experience and history. The program gained national attention not only because it is contentious, but also due to its academic success. Arizona conservatives opposed the program because they believe it violated state law (HB 2281) which states that an academic program is illegal if it “promotes resentment toward a race or class of people.”

The conservative reaction was unfortunate, as the program focused on fostering pride in students’ heritage, not resentment toward others. And an audit mandated by Huppenthal showed that the MAS program had helped raise student achievement, and students who participated in the program were more likely to attend college:

Students in the MAS program far outperformed their peers on Arizona’s state standardized tests in reading (by 45 percentage points), writing (by 59 percentage points), and math (by 33 percentage points), and they enroll in post-secondary institutions at a rate of 67 percent, well above the national average. Also, pedagogies [teaching strategies] used in Tucson’s MAS classes encourage and support students to be actively involved in their communities, a strategy that has been shown to correlate with increased classroom engagement.”

Although many educators and civil rights activists opposed the banning of the program, the school district decided to suspend it due to fear of losing state aid. Many of the literary sources that were taught can no longer be a part of the Arizona curriculum, but students can use these books for independent reading. As a result, activists and writers last week smuggled banned books written by Mexican-Americans into Tucson. The movement is known as librotraficantes, or book traffickers, and the goal is to restore the successful program.


The banning of Mexican-American studies not only censors important perspectives in American history, but is also clearly a detriment to student achievement. Literature that reflects urban and minority perspectives can engage students and help them relate to their coursework. Just as increasing teacher diversity has become an important strategy to connecting with an increasingly multiethnic student population, so is creating a diverse curriculum crucial to addressing education disparities in schools with diverse student bodies.